In today’s feelings-based society, comfort is king. To cause someone discomfort in the arena of ideas is a serious offence, at least to the liberal establishment. The university setting has long been a breeding ground of liberal thought, among professors and students alike. Introducing opinions which counteract that majority is met with resistance, ridicule, and attempts to silence. This is not a new development.
An incident at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin last October, and its aftermath, has spurred discussion regarding freedom on campus. A portion of the summary of the incident, as relayed in an article in The Atlantic:
“Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student in philosophy who was leading a class called Theory of Ethics, was teaching undergraduates about John Rawls. She asked for examples of current events to which Rawlsian philosophy could be applied.
‘One student offered the example of gay marriage as something that Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle would allow because it would not restrict the liberty of others and therefore should not be illegal,’ according to Holtz’s version of events. ‘Ms. Abbate noted that this was a correct way to apply Rawls’ Principle and is said to have asked ‘does anyone not agree with this?’ Ms Abbate later added that if anyone did not agree that gay marriage was an example of something that fits the Rawls’ Equal Liberty Principle, they should see her after class.’
Sure enough, a student approached her after class, and in what was arguably an ethical breach, surreptitiously recorded their exchange.”
“Student: Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.
Abbate: Ok, there are some opinions that are not appropriate that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions, and quite honestly, do you know if anyone in the class is homosexual?
Student: No, I don’t.
Abbate: And don’t you think that that would be offensive to them if you were to raise your hand and challenge this?
Student: If I choose to challenge this, it’s my right as an American citizen.
Abbate: Ok, well, actually you don’t have a right in this class, as … especially as an ethics professor, to make homophobic comments, racist comments, sexist comments …”
and further on…
“Student: Ok, so because they are homosexual I can’t have my opinions? And it’s not being offensive towards them because I am just having my opinions on a very broad subject.
Abbate: You can have whatever opinions you want but I can tell you right now, in this class homophobic comments, racist comments, and sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don’t like that you are more than free to drop this class.”
Professor John McAdams of Marquette University wrote a blog post in November 2014 regarding the encounter in the class, and between the instructor and student afterwards. For a variety of reasons, this tenured professor was fired for doing so, as indicated by this letter from January 2015. Among the reasons for firing him, the professor, in his blog post, shared the name of the graduate student/instructor, while not sharing the name of the student who approached her after class. Naming parties (or in this case a party) does involve breaching confidentiality, but I suspect, as is apparent throughout the letter, that this is not where the weight of the university’s decision to fire him centred.
In a ‘Slate’ article reacting to the incident and atmosphere on campuses in general, Universities Are Right—and Within Their Rights—to Crack Down on Speech and Behavior, law professor Eric Posner asserts that university students are more like children than fully capable adults, and institutions should treat them as such. He exclaims that with a students-are-children approach, fairness (by way of protecting all equally) will have finally arrived at higher learning institutions, and conservatives, libertarians, and liberals alike should be glad for this. Hooray! What is apparent, however, is Posner’s thinly veiled acknowledgment revealing anything but an evolving sense of equality. It is an evolution, but a tyrannical kind meant to silence conservative thought.
University students, impressionable and idealistic as they may be, are not children. Attempting to force feed that theory to post-college adults who know better does not make it so. The central theme of the incident at Marquette University dealt with an opposing viewpoint which might be met with so much resistance in the classroom that it was labeled “harmful” or part of a “phobic” stance. To declare that a personal opinion on a subject matter by a participant in a class should be snuffed out, because others might not like it, is an absolutely astounding attack on freedom.
Furthermore, to whitewash such a thought with the faux idea that childlike beings attend these classes is in itself childish nonsense. It is essentially saying we believe students to be ready to train for careers and establish themselves professionally, but they are not ready to think for themselves. It also says the priority of higher learning is not an environment where thought and discussion is facilitated, but where participants are monitored to protect them from uncomfortable conversations. At the very least, most general aspect, it is a disservice to those who’ve made the choice to further their education in a university setting. At the most (which I believe the true nature of this is), it is the idea that shielding students from differing opinions, which might challenge their core beliefs, is more harmful than preparatory, and students sharing such unpopular opinions should learn early on in this infancy to silence their tongue. Both are toxic.
As seen by the incident in October, the subject of gay marriage is one such area where differing opinions are not allowed. Supporters of gay marriage are given an open forum, but those with personally held, religious or non-religious opposition to same are not. One is praised, the other is hushed. It is glaringly obvious that equality of treatment is not there, nor will it be in an environment of learning anchored heavily in liberal thought.
Toward the end of his article Posner remarks, when speaking of students: “Recognising that their parents and schools have not fully prepared them for independence, (they) want universities to resume their traditional role in loco parentis.”
Like it or not, attendance at higher learning institutions requires independent thought, keeping oneself in check academically and socially, and facing consequences that come with neglecting both. Young people are on the step right before their professional lives, and, if anything, should and will be stretched academically and intellectually. It is not the job of faculty to coddle those in their class nor is it their job to silence conflicting opinions.
Welcome to the real world, young adults. You’re on your own.